Category: Archive

Book Review: Heady mix of liquor and lore

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mike Hudson

DUBLIN PUB LIFE AND LORE: An Oral History, by Kevin C. Kearns. Roberts Rinehart Publishers. 273 pp. $15.95.

Brendan Behan drew his inspiration in them and Michael Collins used them to plot a revolution. We’re talking about the pubs of Dublin, of course, and Kevin C. Kearns’ exhaustive – but never exhausting – new study provides an outlook that is at once academic and romantic, offering insights into the drinking culture of the great city which would otherwise take one a lifetime to gather.

The author begins the volume with a series of scholarly essays on the history and evolution of Dublin’s public houses and their impact on the city’s culture and social life. Events are discussed such as the great whiskey fire of 1875 – in which a liquor warehouse and brewery went up in flames, sending a mixture of burning malt and whiskey streaming down Ardee Street. This resulted in the subsequent arrests of scores of people who had lain down in the gutter to lap up the free booze. That same year, more people were arrested for drunkenness in Dublin than in London, which had a population 10 times as large.

Also cited are two centuries worth of official reports written by various British officials on the drinking habits of Dubliners. While the portraits painted here are generally unflattering, there is an occasional nod to the fact that the poverty which most of the locals were forced to endure contributed to the general insobriety. And the insobriety must be considered to be fairly general. By the mid-17th Century, when Dublin’s population numbered just 4,000 families, an astonishing total of 1,180 drinking houses were recorded in the city.

As Irish temperance movement began to gain steam in the late 1830s, only to be dashed by the don’t-give-a-damn attitude that accompanied the horrors of the Famine. And following those dark years, the neighborhood pub became a setting for sedition, giving the city’s Fenians their meeting place and the literati a focal point for the discussion of ideas.

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By the dawn of the 20th century, Dublin’s pubs – no longer necessarily associated with chronic alcoholism – had become an important part in nearly every aspect of neighborhood life. The publican himself rivaled and often bested the parish priest in terms of influence, helping families financially during times of trouble, distributing baskets of food and stout at Christmas, providing counseling and generally assuming the role of elder to those living in the vicinity of his “local.”

The best of them were classy yet classless environments, in which a dockworker could argue literary theory with Flann O’Brien on a level basis, while the worst were places where muggings, prostitution and fistfights were commonplace.

Here the second part of the book kicks in. Written in Studs Terkel’s now well-known style of “oral history,” two series of interviews – the first with publicans and barmen and the second with regular pub patrons, men and women all ranging in age from 50-93 – paint a vivid portrait of Dublin pub life during what the author obviously considers to be the golden age, from the time of the Easter Rising to about 1960.

Many of the stories are priceless. The antics of Behan, Kavanagh, O’Nolan and the rest of the literary set, or Michael Collins sipping on a single small sherry and then beating a hasty retreat through the basement when the place was invaded by thirsty Black and Tans. The omnipotence of the Guinness representative, who’d show up unannounced, order a pint then measure its temperature with a pocket thermometer. Such a visit could mean ruination for a local, as the Guinness man had the power to deny proper labels for the bottles of stout.

The lack of proper toilet facilities for women in most of the pubs until about 40 years ago often led to comical results, and accounts of the “singing pubs” such as Lalor’s, are related most fondly by any number of the interviewees.

Likewise, there are many raucous and hilarious stories of the various disreputable kips and shebbeens, where “unfortunate girls,” poitin, gambling and dissolution were the order of the day. As a joke, some would carry rolled-up toilet paper in their jacket pockets in order to devil the pickpockets frequenting these joints.

The text is accompanied by a large number of vintage black and white photographs that further the feeling of fond nostalgia.

Kevin C. Kearns’ “Dublin Pub Life & Lore,” especially the second section, is a fascinating read – vibrant, funny and sad by turns, and full of the resonance of lives well lived.

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